Diversity Dialogues panel takes on the First Amendment

Timothy Brandner and Ariel Owens
Timothy Brandner and Ariel Owens

The first in NIU’s series of Diversity Dialogues began, appropriately, with the First Amendment.

Students, faculty and area community members gathered Wednesday in the Carl Sandburg Auditorium for “The First Amendment, Free Speech and Lawful Assembly.”

The panel discussion kicked off the series designed to give the university community to place to talk openly and honestly on complex and important matters.

“We intentionally chose the topic of the First Amendment as it is the cornerstone of our liberty as a nation, and we want to confirm our commitment to that precious right as a university. A university is a place where ideas are shared, developed, argued about and socialized. The challenge is how to maintain our commitment to this fundamental liberty, and maintain the respectful fabric of our community,” NIU President Doug Baker said in his opening remarks.

The panel included Yale Law School Senior Research Scholar Frederick M. Lawrence; Mark W. Cordes, interim dean of the NIU College of Law; and students Ariel Owens and Timothy Brandner, both members of the NIU Student Association. NIU Law professor Yolanda M. King moderated.

Baker set the tone for candor in the dialog by mentioning an issue that surfaced in 2012 when an NIU employee found a noose in a work area on campus. He said a symbol of intolerance and bigotry, such as a noose, may be allowed under the Constitution of the United States, but using such symbols to discriminate is not.

Frederick M. Lawrence, Mark W. Cordes
Frederick M. Lawrence and Mark W. Cordes

“The use of such a symbol to illegally discriminate or harass another person in the workplace is not condoned by the university. I want to be clear that NIU denounces the use of a noose or any other symbol rooted in hatred and oppression to unlawfully harm the rights and liberties of others,” Baker said.

Each member of the panel spoke about what the First Amendment meant to them, specifically with regard to free speech and the right to assemble, addressing in particular the need for tolerance even when speech is offensive.

“The First Amendment means I have to tolerate a lot of speech that I strongly dislike,” Cordes said. “Whether it’s mere annoyances… or deeply offensive speech … or sometimes speech that even marginalizes people, we have to tolerate this and we have to commit to it. But that doesn’t mean we have to remain silent.”

Members of the panel also discussed responsibilities to others regarding free speech, and each spoke of striving for a shared understanding.

“It’s vitally important that we learn to disagree without delegitimizing one another,” Lawrence said. “The goal is not to agree with everyone … but to find some level of common ground.”

Brandner addressed the question of how the university and the community work together to promote civility, saying the university has the obligation to educate students of their rights and what works society.

“We need to make sure that students, or anybody seeking to protest on campus, is aware … of what will work in an academic civil environment,” Brandner said.

Diversity DialoguesSeveral of the more than 100 audience members asked questions of the panel regarding the intent versus the impact of speech; ensuring campus speakers are open to dialogue; reconciling religious speech that is racist or homophobic; and when free speech becomes harassment.

One education student asked how to become role models of free speech for children.

“People should be speaking out, should be writing books, articles, op-eds about it … talk about in classrooms. Educate children how to express themselves,” Lawrence said.

Keep the conversation going. Here are ways to continue the Diversity Dialogue:

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